Suburbanites are happy their towns demerged
The following text by Mayor Anthony Housefather appeared in The Gazette on January 31, 2007.
In June of 2004, The Gazette editorially counselled suburban voters to vote against demerger. Fortunately, most suburban residents didn't take The Gazette's advice and 15 municipalities on the Island of Montreal and four municipalities on the South Shore were reconstituted on Jan. 1, 2006 with their own mayors and councils in charge of local services once again.
While your editorial on Jan. 27 recognized the unfairness of the forced mergers, the arrogance of the mayor of Montreal and the absurdities and injustices of the agglomeration council, you again opined that: "If they had known then what we know now, we believe, many suburbanites would have stifled the impulse to vote themselves out of mega-Montreal."
That passing comment demonstrates that the editorial board of The Gazette is as out of touch on this issue today as it was in June 2004. I believe that if there were a referendum today, the majority for demerger would be even higher than it was in 2004 because residents of the demerged cities have seen their local services gradually return to the levels that they expect and deserve.
While it is true that the agglomeration council is an unfair structure and an affront to democracy, so was the megacity.
When I campaigned for demerger, I always stressed that the principal reason for demerger was that local councils would have complete control over our human resources and the services our residents care most about such as snow-clearing, garbage collection, recycling, recreation programs, libraries and public security. Demerger would also restore our ability to tax to pay for such programs and ensure that that local services would eventually return to pre-merger levels. I think most reconstituted cities have achieved this and our residents recognize it.
In Cote St. Luc, for example, given the fact the local municipality once again controls human resources, we have been able to appoint a young and energetic management staff that has worked tirelessly with council to rebuild our services and we have established a management policy that is fair to managers but also affordable given our size.
We have also been able to restore good relationships with our local unions, and have enjoyed a year of total labour peace. We now control our own collective-agreement negotiations which means we can sit down with the unions and agree on terms that make sense for our city and our employees.
In megacity Montreal, human-resources policies are set by the central city and not the boroughs. Had we stayed in Montreal, we would have continued to have Montreal dictate human-resources policy and we would have continued to be hostage to the city of Montreal's struggles with its unions. Not a good scenario.
The reconstituted municipalities now are able to raise money for local services through the local tax bill. We decide locally how much money we need to run our services effectively. Boroughs within Montreal do not have that luxury and simply receive the amount of money the Montreal executive committee decides to allot for local services. Their only option is to levy a surtax to raise additional funds leading to average tax hikes in a borough like LaSalle of approximately 17 per cent.
Meanwhile, a year after demerger, through visibility and control of finances, most demerged cities have seen an average increase of local residential taxes that is less than the rate of inflation while having far greater amounts to spend on local services than they did as boroughs of the city of Montreal.
As demerged communities we have once again been able to introduce new and innovative services or improve what existed in Montreal. In Cote St. Luc, for example, we regained control of our local water network and this year fixed breaks in an average of a few hours compared with the several days it took while we were part of Montreal.
We introduced a Voluntary Citizens on Patrol Program that has been heralded by the police as an excellent enhancement to public security and have agreed with our blue-collar union to do garbage collection in-house at a significant savings to the increased tender prices that came in this year.
We have once again been able to ensure that our public library has sufficient funding to serve our residents by charging non-residents for membership. Other demerged cities have their own accomplishments and it is very rare that I hear any resident of a demerged city wishing that they were part of the megacity once again.
Sure, the agglomeration council is a source of constant frustration. As always when it comes to regional services, we pay a lot and get very little with no real say. I join my colleagues in calling for the Liberal government to undo the structure it has created to provide a fairer, more accountable and more democratic regional level of government that can not be abused by the city of Montreal.
I do believe that one day a Quebec government will change this structure as almost everyone agrees that it makes no sense. That being said, if we had not demerged, we would have continued to have no real say over any services, local or regional and the improvements to local services that our residents have seen since demerger would not have occurred.
Let me assure The Gazette that suburban residents do not regret the decision that they made in 2004 to leave the megacity. It was a good decision; it was the right decision.
Anthony Housefather is the mayor of Cote St. Luc.